The NEC is a mid-major conference on the rise. For years, the conference had taken a backseat to other leagues that cover the same geographical areas, such as the Big East, Atlantic 10, MAAC and CAA. But little by little, this conference is climbing in the ranks.
LIU-Brooklyn has been a high-quality mid-major the last two seasons, and Robert Morris and Wagner have the potential to make some national headlines this year. Overall, the NEC is not a top mid-major conference, but it has a lot of firepower among its best teams.
This year, LIU will most likely fall from its throne due to the suspensions of its top three scorers, but Robert Morris, Wagner and Quinnipiac will keep the race to this year's NEC crown plenty exciting.
Here is a 2012-13 season preview for the NEC, with team-by-team breakdowns, preseason all-conference awards and predictions for how the final standings will shape up.
Lost: Ben Altit, Jordan Harris, Troy Robinson, Alex Herzing
Gains: Curtis Oakley, Andrew Scocca, Shane McLaughlin, Declan Soukup
For the first time in its existence as a Division I program, Bryant has the talent to be competitive. The Bulldogs return almost everyone important from last year's team, excluding Ben Altit, who averaged five points in 19.6 minutes.
Most importantly, the Bulldogs' big three of Alex Francis, Frankie Dobbs and Corey Maynard is back. All three had scoring averages in double figures last season and are potential all-conference players.
Francis was Bryant's best scorer and rebounder. He averaged 17 points per game along with 7.4 rebounds and 1.5 assists. He was also the team's most efficient scorer at 51.2 percent from the field. Last season, he added a three-point shot to his game, making 13 of 38 attempts. If he can become more consistent from beyond the arc, he would be very difficult to defend at 6'6". The one area he must improve is his atrocious 4.8 turnovers per game.
Dobbs and Maynard anchor the Bulldogs in the backcourt. Dobbs was No. 2 in the NEC in assists last year with 4.6 per game, and Maynard was No. 12 with 3.5. Also in the backcourt is Raphael Jordan, who averaged 7.1 points and led the Bulldogs in three-point shooting at 34.7 percent.
Just like last year, size will probably be Bryant's biggest weakness. Francis is undersized, and junior Claybrin McMath is the only other big that can be counted on nightly. The Bulldogs will need either senior Vlad Kondratyev or freshman Andrew Scocca to play a significant role.
Lost: Ken Horton, Rob Ptacek, David Simmons, Mark LaPorte
Gains: Andrew Hurd, Khalen Cumberlander, Matt Hunter, Brandon Peel, Erik Raleigh
Central Connecticut State was extremely talented last season, yet it still finished only 10-8 in the NEC and 13-16 overall. The Blue Devils had the best under-the-radar trio made up of seniors Ken Horton and Rob Ptacek and freshman Kyle Vinales. At one point in the season, all three were averaging upwards of 20 points per game, a beyond impressive feat.
Although Horton and Ptacek are gone, Vinales is now a more mature sophomore with the talent to lead this team to a solid finish in this year's NEC. He is the conference's No. 2 returning scorer after posting 17.9 points per game as a freshman. That mark was also good for No. 1 in the nation among freshmen.
The rough part is that is that he shot only 39.3 percent from the field. However, that is somewhat expected when you ask a freshman to carry a huge scoring load. That number should pick up a little more as he gains more experience.
Sophomore Malcolm McMillan will start alongside Vinales in the backcourt. He played nearly 30 minutes per game last year and led the Blue Devils with four assists per game. This year, he will have to improve his scoring game. A repeat of last year's 2.4 points per game on 31 percent shooting will not fly.
The big question for Central Connecticut State is who its three other starters and key reserves will be.
Jon Efese and Adonis Burbage are the two best bets to start in the frontcourt. Efese averaged 3.9 points and 3.9 rebounds last year while Burbage averaged 2.6 points in only 11.6 minutes.
Lost: George Goode, Briahn Smith, Mouhamed Lo, Ayotunde Oyeniyi, Sam Fernley, Louis Larizza
Gains: Sekou Harris, Xavier Harris, Myles Mann, Kyle Pearson, Sidney Sanders Jr., Mustafaa Jones, Yves Jules
Fairleigh Dickinson had an abysmal 2011-12 campaign, winning only three games all year and failing to qualify for the NEC tournament. The good news is that the Knights return with their top two scorers and graduated only one starter. However, that starter, George Goode, was the key to their inside game and they need to find a way to replace him if they are going to be competitive.
That being said, the Knights do have their top two scorers: Melquan Bolding and Lonnie Hayes. Bolding posted 15.1 points and three rebounds per game, and in 11 games, Hayes averaged 13 points and 4.1 assists.
But these two alone will not get Fairleigh Dickinson out of the cellar.
The Knights need a breakout season from Kinu Rochford, who averaged 9.3 points and 6.8 rebounds last year. The 6'6" senior shot nearly 56 percent from the field, and he needs to be equally efficient as the main big man this year.
Even with Rochford having a strong senior season, the Knights do not have much chance for success. Expect them to drop to last place in the standings this year.
Lost: Jamal Olasewere, Julian Boyd, C.J. Garner, Troy Joseph, Arnold Mayorga, Michael Culpo, Pete Aguilar, Robinson Odoch Opong
Gains: D.J. Griggs, E.J. Reed, Gilbert Parga, Kedar Edwards
LIU-Brooklyn has won the conference the past two seasons, and the Blackbirds initially were expected to once again compete for the NEC title. But those hopes were dashed when their three leading scorers plus one other reserve were suspended following an assault charge in September. For now, I am assuming that these players will all be out for the season.
Included were NEC Player of the Year Julian Boyd, first-team selection Jamal Olasewere and starting guard C.J. Garner. With these three, LIU is for sure the most talented team in the NEC, but without them, the Blackbirds are just another average team in a low-level conference. Now, point guard Jason Brickman is their only all-conference-level player.
To make the task of a three-peat even harder, the Blackbirds also had a coaching change this offseason.
Jim Ferry, who had rebuilt LIU's basketball program after taking over in 2002, bolted for Duquesne, and Jack Perri, who spent seven seasons as a LIU assistant, was promoted to head coach. Although Perri has spent time with these players and learned under the successful Ferry, he is still a liability as a first-year head coach.
In the backcourt, the Blackbirds will start Jason Brickman and Brandon Thompson.
Brickman was one of the top point guards in the country with 7.3 assists per game last year in addition to 9.6 points and 2.6 rebounds. He also shot 40.6 percent from beyond the arc. The junior has the potential to lead the nation in assists this year.
Thompson played only 17.6 minutes per game last year, but in that limited time he averaged 4.4 points and 2.5 rebounds.
Sophomore Gerrell Martin and freshmen D.J. Griggs and Kedar Edwards could also be fighting for a starting position with this team being so thin.
In the frontcourt, Kenny Onyechi, a 6'7" senior, is the only sure starter. Onyechi only averaged 5.3 points and 3.3 rebounds last year, but as a freshman he averaged 8.1 points and two years ago he shot 61.4 percent from the field.
Lost: Mike Myers Keitt, Austin Tillotson, Will Campbell, Phil Wait, Daniel James
Gains: Jalen Palm, Christian White, Tyrone O'Garro, Collin Stewart, Khalil Brown
Monmouth finished only 12-20 last year, but that record does not tell the true story of the entire season. With a new head coach in former Vanderbilt assistant King Rice, the Hawks struggled early in the season and began 3-16. The Hawks then got hot and won eight of their final 10 regular season games. Although they lost four players from the rotation, they still have enough to keep that hot streak going into 2012-13.
A large part of that is because Coach Rice returns with his three leading scorers: Jesse Steele, Andrew Nicholas and Dion Nesmith.
Steele was the Hawks' most indispensable player last season. The senior was the only player to average more than 24 minutes per game, and he also had the best all-around stats with 12.6 points, 4.2 assists and 1.2 steals per game.
Nicholas had a great freshman season with 8.8 points and 2.6 rebounds per game. Now it is time for him to become more efficient. He shot only 38.8 percent from the field and 27.8 percent on treys.
Nesmith, another senior guard, averaged 8.8 points and 3.1 rebounds while leading the Hawks in three-point shooting at 38.4 percent.
Up front, Rice will likely start Ed Waite and Marcus Ware. Waite, an undersized forward, posted 7.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, and Ware averaged 6.4 points and 3.9 rebounds.
Arizona transfer Khalil Brown will also fight for a starting position in the frontcourt.
Lost: Lamar Trice, Danny Thompson, Chad Holley, Jacolby Wells, Dan Kenny
Gains: Sam Prescott, Christian Crockett, Shivaughn Wiggins, Gregory Graves, Melvin Gregory, Rashad Whack
Following a poor 8-21 season, Mount St. Mary's fired Robert Burke and replaced him with Jamion Christian, who had previously served as an assistant at VCU under Shaka Smart.
Coach Christian inherits a solid core of players, including the top four scorers from last year. This group is led by Julian Norfleet, who led the team in scoring with 13.7 points per game. He also proved himself as a better all-around player with 4.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists.
Joining him in the backcourt is Josh Castellanos, who lead the team in assists with 4.6 per game. He also scored 8.1 points per game, but he was very inefficient at 32.6 percent from the field.
The big men on the roster are Raven Barber, Kelvin Parker and Kristijan Krajina. All three were very solid last season, but they will have to work together to replace the graduated Danny Thompson's 7.8 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game.
The Mountaineers don't have any freshmen that look ready to make a big, immediate impact, but they do have a pair of eligible transfers that should receive good playing time.
Sam Prescott, who played his freshman and sophomore seasons at Marist, will add another scorer to the backcourt. As a sophomore, Prescott led the Red Foxes in scoring with 11.4 points per game.
Rashad Whack, who averaged 1.7 points and 1.3 rebounds at George Mason, is less likely to have as big an impact this year.
Lost: James Johnson, Kevin Tarca, Alex Jackson, Terrance Bobb-Jones
Gains: James Ford, Tariq Carey, Kendrick Ray, Shaquille Shannon
Quinnipiac lost leading scorer James Johnson (16.5 points per game, 3.5 assists per game), but it returns its four other starters plus a few of last year's reserves for the 2012-13 season.
Most notable are the returns of starting forward Ike Azotam and starting point guard Dave Johnson.
Azotam had a breakout sophomore season, as his scoring and rebounding numbers more than tripled and his field-goal percentage rose by nearly nine percentage points. He was a dominant inside presence in the NEC, averaging 15.8 points and 9.5 rebounds and posting 14 double-doubles.
Now, he is a junior and a potential NEC Player of the Year.
Johnson was third on the team in scoring with 8.7 points per game, and he also averaged four rebounds and 3.7 assists, a team best.
Azotam and Johnson combine to make possibly the best inside-outside duo in the conference.
Joining Azotam in the frontcourt are Jamee Jackson and Ousmane Drame. Jackson averaged 8.4 points and 5.1 rebounds while Drame posted 6.5 points and 7.3 rebounds in only 19.5 minutes per game as a freshman.
Robert Morris and Wagner are a step ahead of the Bobcats in terms of winning the 2012-13 NEC championship, but Quinnipiac is a great sleeper pick.
Lost: Lawrence Bridges, Brandon Herman, Darren Washington
Gains: Karvel Anderson, Vaughn Morgan, Stephan Hawkins
Robert Morris didn't receive all of the attention it deserved last year because LIU and Wagner stole all the hype, but the Colonials still finished No. 3 in the NEC and advanced to the conference championship game for the fourth straight year, where they lost to the Blackbirds.
The Colonials have become what every mid-major should hope to be: consistently one of the top teams in its league with a chance at the NCAA tournament every year.
The Colonials return all but one player from last year's rotation. Lawrence Bridges, who averaged 3.8 points and 3.8 rebounds in 19.9 rebounds graduated, but all five starters are back.
Velton Jones, who paced the Colonials with 16 points and 4.5 assists per game, is back after making the all-conference first team last season. He is joined by Coron Williams, Russell Johnson, Lucky Jones, Mike McFadden, Lijah Thompson and Anthony Myers to create an extremely balanced attack.
The Colonials' weaknesses will be their three-point shooting and inside game.
Williams and Myers were the only good long-range shooters last year at 41 percent and 40.7 percent, respectively. Williams was the only one who proved that he could shoot at a high percentage while also shooting a high volume of treys, making 87 of 212 attempts.
Robert Morris' lack of a strong inside presence was exposed in last year's conference championship game against LIU. McFadden and Thompson will have to become more dominant in order for the Colonials to challenge LIU, and they could receive some extra help from freshmen Vaugh Morgan and Stephan Hawkins.
Lost: Stan Dulaire, Steve Zazuri
Gains: Cole Walton, Lewis Cramer, De'Aires Tate, Tevin Falzon, Mostafa Abdel Latif
Sacred Heart struggled last year, but it returns all five starters, including the conference's leading scorer Shane Gibson.
Gibson has managed to stay under the radar in his time at Sacred Heart, although he has been one of the most prolific scorers in the nation over the last two seasons. As a redshirt sophomore he averaged 17.2 points, and last year that number increased to 22. His shooting percentages also jumped up last season; he shot 51 percent from the field and 43.3 percent from beyond the arc.
But he is not all the Pioneers have.
Evan Kelley and Chris Evans join Gibson in the backcourt, looking to follow up strong sophomore seasons. Kelley led the Pioneers in assists with 2.5 per game and Evans was close behind with 2.3. Evans was also the team's third-best scorer with 8.1 points per game.
In the front court, Sacred Heart is not quite as strong. It returns 6'9" Justin Swidowski, who was the only other Pioneer with a scoring average in double figures. He also led the team in rebounding with 5.3 per game.
Louis Montes, a 6'4" forward, joins Swidowski up front.
The Pioneers could also look to redshirt senior Nick Greenbacker, a 6'9" center who averaged 3.3 points and 2.2 rebounds last season, to take on a bigger role this season.
Lost: Stefan Perunicic, Justin Newton
Gains: Anthony White, Alexsandar Isailovic
St. Francis surprisingly finished 12-6 in the NEC last season, the program's best league record since the 2003-04 season.
This year, the Terriers return four starters and can realistically shoot for a top three finish.
The only starter they lost was 6'6" wing Stefan Perunicic. Last season, Perunicic was second on the team with 11.6 points per game, and he was St. Francis' best three-point shooter at 42.4 percent. But even without him, the Terriers return a pair of solid shooters.
Travis Nichols, who shot 40.7 percent from beyond the arc as a junior, is the best returning shooter. At 6'4", he could be ready to take on the role that Perunicic left behind.
Ben Mockford, who led the Terriers in scoring with 11.8 points per game, was also a solid three-point shooter at 34.6 percent. He led the team in three-pointers made with 83 for the season.
Joining Nichols and Mockford in the backcourt are point guards Dre Calloway and Brent Jones. Calloway started at point guard last year before his season-ending injury and averaged 3.4 assists per game. Once Jones stepped in as the team's main point guard, he averaged 4.1 dimes.
In the frontcourt, St. Francis will look to Akeem Johnson and Jalen Cannon. Johnson had a breakout junior year with 11.3 points and 5.1 rebounds per game while also shooting 57.4 percent from the field. Cannon, despite being only a sophomore, could actually be the better forward. As a freshman last season, he averaged eight points and 8.8 rebounds.
Lost: Scott Eatherton, Jon Taylor, Chris Johnson, Dexter Lindsey, Morece Isaac
Gains: Zachary Vigneault, Ben Millaud-Meunier, Greg Brown, Aric Gresko, Ronnie Drinnon, Stephon Mosley
St. Francis (PA) has gone to the NCAA tournament only one time, and that was more than 20 years ago. The future looks like more of the same for the Red Flash.
St. Francis was terrible last season, stringing back-to-back wins together only once and losing six or more games in a row three times.
Now, Rob Krimmel takes over for Don Friday, who was fired in April, and he has a little, but not much, to work with.
The Red Flash lost its leading scorer when Scott Eatherton announced his transfer to Northeastern, but the team's other four starters return. However, having a bunch of starters return from a six-win is not always the best news.
The big bright spot for St. Francis is that Umar Shannon will be back this season. Shannon averaged 15.8 points as a sophomore and then scored 26 points in his only game as a junior before an ACL injury ended his season prematurely. If he can return to his pre-injury self this year, St. Francis can still remain competitive in the NEC.
Lost: Tyler Murray, Chris Martin, Ryan Schrotenboer
Gains: Dwaun Anderson, Eric Fanning, Langston Burnett
With LIU-Brooklyn depleted, Wagner easily becomes a top two team in the NEC, and the Seahawks will compete with Robert Morris for the conference title. They return four starters from last year's 25-win team, losing shooting guard Tyler Murray, who averaged 12 points and 2.1 assists while shooting 49 percent from beyond the arc.
But returning are starting guards Kenneth Ortiz and Latif Rivers. Ortiz led the team in assists with 4.3 per game, but he did more than just distribute. Ortiz also posted 8.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game. Rivers received the most attention of any Wagner player last year. He led Wagner in scoring with 14.6 points per game while also posting 2.2 assists. Along with 6'6" wing Jonathon Williams, who shot better than 53 percent from the field a season ago, the Seahawks have the most powerful backcourt in the conference.
To help them out even more, they added former Michigan State commit Dwaun Anderson. A 6'4" guard, he was ranked No. 95 in the Class of 2011 by Rivals. Now, he is expected to be the best freshman in the NEC.
In the frontcourt, the Seahawks return Naofall Folahan, Josh Thompson, Mario Moody and Orlando Parker. None played more than 20 minutes per game, but all four have the potential to make very significant contributions. Look for Folahan to emerge as one of the better big men in the conference. Last year, he averaged 4.3 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks.
Sacred Heart's Shane Gibson averaged 22 points last season and shot better than 50 percent from the field.
All-NEC First Team
Jason Brickman, LIU-Brooklyn
Velton Jones, Robert Morris
Shane Gibson, Sacred Heart
Alex Francis, Bryant
Ike Azotam, Quinnipiac
Preseason Player of the Year—Shane Gibson, Sacred Heart
Defensive Player of the Year—Naofall Folahan, Wagner
Newcomer of the Year—Dwaun Anderson, Wagner
1. Robert Morris
4. St. Francis (NY)
5. Sacred Heart
8. Central Connecticut State
9. Mount St. Mary's
11. St. Francis (PA)
12. Fairleigh Dickinson